Pentobarbital – What Is It, How it Entered the Pet Food Supply Chain, and What You Can Do To Protect Your Canines & Felines

Pentobarbital – What Is It, How it Entered the Pet Food Supply Chain, and What You Can Do To Protect Your Canines & Felines

You may have heard of the recent pet food recalls involving certain brands of commercially-available canned pet foods as a result of pentobarbital contamination (see Truth About Pet Food for the latest update).

Considering the fear imparted into the psyche of pet owners worldwide after the Melamine recall and the ongoing concerns surrounding chicken and duck treats manufactured in China, these latest recalls should prompt owners to consider the current foods and treats that their companion canines and felines consume each day.

What is Pentobarbital?

Pentobarbital is a thiobarbiturate anesthetic (i.e. a barbiturate), which is a class of drugs derived from barbituric acid. It has uses both in human and veterinary medicine as a sedative.

What is Pentobarbital Used for in Veterinary Medicine?

Pentobarbital is most commonly used in veterinary medicine when performing euthanasia, as only small amounts are needed to severely suppress breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure which ultimately causes lack of normal oxygen and nutrient delivery to vital organs (brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, etc.), organ system malfunction, and death. Generally, pentobarbital is used for life-ending procedures (euthanasia). It is also sometimes used for sedation, although this use is less common because there are safer and more-effective drugs available that don’t have the same potential for severely depressive effects. Pentobarbital is chemically related to phenobarbital, which is a commonly used anti-convulsant drug that helps control seizures in both dogs and cats.

What Can Happen if Your Canine or Feline Consumes Pentobarbital in Food or Treats?

If your pet consumes pentobarbital in food or treats there are a variety of adverse and potentially life-threatening health responses that can occur. Larger volumes of pentobarbital will lead to more severe clinical signs, including:
  • Ptyalism (salivation)
  • Emesis (vomiting)
  • Stool changes (soft to liquid stools, blood, mucus, urgency, explosive nature, etc.)
  • Hyporexia (decreased appetite)
  • Lethargy/depression
  • Neurologic abnormalities (tremor, seizure, vocalization, unusual eye movements)
  • Ataxia (difficulty walking)
  • Collapse
  • Coma
  • Death
  • Other
Pentobarbital should definitely not be included in pet food or treats. If your pet shows any of the above or other signs of illness after consuming foods or treats, immediately call your veterinarian or a local veterinary emergency hospital.

How Did Pentobarbital Enter the Pet Food Supply Chain?

Pentobarbital most likely entered the pool of ingredients that formulates pet foods as a result of animals being euthanized with the drug. Rendering is the process of using various animal parts to provide protein, fat, and other ingredients for consumable products, like pet foods and treats, and non-consumable products, such as soap, candles, leather goods, etc. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), rendered ingredients found in pet foods and treats include “poultry by-product meal, meat meal, meat and bone meal and fish meal” and others. The current pentobarbital crisis isn't the only time that concern for the drug being found in pet foods has been raised. According to the Report on the Risk from Pentobarbital in Dog Food from 2002 “during the 1990s, FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) received reports from veterinarians that pentobarbital, an anesthetizing agent used for dogs and other animals, seemed to be losing its effectiveness in dogs. Based on these reports, CVM officials decided to investigate a plausible theory that the dogs were exposed to pentobarbital through dog food, and that this exposure was making them less responsive to pentobarbital when it was used as a drug.” At the time, “the results of the assessment led CVM to conclude that it is highly unlikely a dog consuming dry dog food will experience any adverse effects from exposures to the low levels of pentobarbital found in CVM’s dog food surveys.” In this latest pentobarbital incident of 2017, the FDA’s cautionary press release details that a family of five dogs in one household started showing sudden-onset neurologic signs shortly after consuming pentobarbital-contaminated canned dog food. Three dogs recovered after receiving appropriate veterinary treatment. One dog requires ongoing treatment with seizure medication. One dog was euthanized due to neurologic signs and the stomach contents were confirmed to contain the drug. The pet owners and retailer’s cans of food were similarly determined to have pentobarbital. The concern here is the lack of oversight that would permit such a poisonous chemical to enter the supply chain for pet food ingredients. As most pet foods and treats contain feed-grade ingredients there are allowances for toxic substances (mold-produced mycotoxins, etc.) to end up in edible pet products that otherwise would not or are less-likely to be found in human-grade foods. The FDA press release also explains some discrepancies about the sourcing of the beef that was used to make the tainted dog food. The manufacturer claims the beef came from a “USDA approved supplier.” An FDA review established “that the supplier’s facility does not have a grant of inspection from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The meat products from this supplier do not bear the USDA inspection mark and would not be considered human grade. USDA-FSIS regulates slaughter of animals for human consumption only.”

How Can You Keep Your Dog or Cat Safe from Pentobarbital Exposure?

You can take steps to keep your pet safe from pentobarbital exposure by feeding meals and treats that are made with human-grade ingredients instead of feed-grade ingredients. As the majority of commercially-available pet consumables are made with feed-grade ingredients, you’ll have to carefully discern the product label to see if the term human grade is used on the packaging. The Honest Kitchen uses only human-grade ingredients when formulating its foods and treats. Click here to learn more about how The Honest Kitchen is able to use the term human grade on its products. If you feed a home-prepared diet made with human-grade ingredients purchased with the intent of feeding your human family members that’s sourced from the grocery store, butcher shop, or farmer’s market, then you’ll have selected non-feed-grade ingredients bearing minimal to no potential to contain pentobarbital. You can avoid pet food and treat recalls by frequently visiting the FDA’s Recalls & Withdrawals page. Besides pentobarbital, some of the reasons consumable products for animals are recalled include bacterial contamination (Listeria, Salmonella, etc.), decreases or increases in vitamin and mineral content, elevations in non-protein nitrogen, and others. If you suspect your pet may have suffered health consequences after eating a commercially-available food or treat you can Report a Pet Food Complaint to the FDA. It's heartbreaking to hear about animals being sickened or killed by contaminants entering the edible pet product supply chain. Such horrible occurrences can benefit pets on a worldwide basis by creating a wakeup call among owners who may otherwise be unaware of or complacent about the quality of the foods and treats entering their pets’ bodies on a daily basis. For my patients, I always recommend feeding foods that are human-grade, whole-food, and appear very similar to the format created by nature.

Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).
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